Tom Clark on the upside of determinism

Reader Tom Clark, who runs the site and comments here on that topic, gave a lecture last winter on determinism, and I’ve put the video below. The YouTube notes say this:

Talk given for the Campus Atheist and Secular Humanists at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Nov. 2, 2017. For a related article, see “Fully Caused: Coming to Terms with Determinism“.

Tom dispels a number of common misconceptions about determinism, and, toward the end, suggests—and I agree—that accepting determinism prompts empathy and compassion in a way that might not arise otherwise, and describes several other salubrious side effects. I was also unfamiliar with the quotes from Darwin and Spinoza questioning contracausal free will.

Another related post is “Could you have done otherwise?

I’ll tell Tom I’ve put this up, and leave him to address any comments.


  1. Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I argue that it’s unfair and unreasonable to suppose that any of us could have done otherwise in actual situations in a way that would make us more responsible than were our actions fully caused.

    The fact that our actions are fully caused doesn’t change the fact that we’re “responsible” for them.

    • Posted January 29, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      ” … in a way that would make us **more** responsible than were our actions fully caused.”

      Dualist free will (soul or mind) does assert greater responsibility than were our actions being fully caused.

      Responsibility in a deterministic context means simply the localised complex set of causes that we have learned to call ‘intent’, ‘willed action’….

      Recent external events, and many past external events – even back to zygote and all the food inputs that cause growth and result in an adult brain, plus all ‘life experiences’ that contribute to the brain, and all internal feedback systems within the brain that – coalesce in an external action caused in turn by the resultant brain-body system.

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:04 am | Permalink

        “Dualist free will (soul or mind) does assert greater responsibility than were our actions being fully caused.”

        Yes, this is a key point: contra-causal freedom makes us ultimate originators who deeply deserve reward or punishment. Subtracting such desert will help push attitudes and policies re criminal justice and social inequality in a more humane, progressive direction, plus make us more cognizant of the causes of crime.

        • Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          Seems like lowering people’s sense of responsibility for their own ideas could work both ways. It works on both good and bad ideas, people with both good and bad histories, supports ideas we favor and those we do not.

          I would rather reform our justice system based on rationality, not emotion. In the US, looking at how other countries do it is a good idea.

        • Posted January 30, 2018 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

          “Freedom” that comes out of nowhere – including, not out of the character or personality that the person brought into the decision – somehow makes that person deeply deserve reward or punishment?? How the heck is that supposed to work? I still don’t get it.

          • Posted January 31, 2018 at 7:23 am | Permalink

            Yes, its a mystery that libertarian philosophers such as Robert Kane are still working on. Even Al Mele hasn’t ruled it out, courtesy of Templeton I suspect. Stay tuned…

  2. rickflick
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:15 am | Permalink


  3. Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I will have to listen tomorrow lunchtime! A pity the volume is so low…
    I am sure to have questions…

    • Janet
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      You can turn on closed captions, cc, I find it helps a lot, especially when volume is low.

  4. Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Are there any historical examples of a legal system based on determinism that where actually compassionate?

    All the societies I can think of where they abandoned the concept of ‘free will’ in favour of biological or social determinism I can think of were absolute hellholes.

    • Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      I don’t think that “good” legal systems, like that in Finland, are EXPLICITLY based on determinism, but I think they are IMPLICITLY based on it, or at least the idea that humans are like broken machines that should either be put aside if unrepairable or fixed if fixable. That’s because they have ongoing psychiatric evaluation as well as rehabilitation programs. And that is implicit determinism.

      I presume you believe in contracausal free will, then? Or, if you are a determinist, think we should keep the notion of free will despite it being wrong because it’s socially inimical?

      I think that Scandinavia in general has implicitly abandoned the concept of free will when it comes to punishment. By the way, what you say about keeping the notion of free will is what many believers say about God: look how horrible godless societies are. Stalin! They were wrong, too.

      But I’m jumping the gun; I’ll let Tom weigh in.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        I’m glad you brought up psychiatric treatment. In Canada it is not part of universal healthcare unless you are in dire straits (suicidal or just very ill) and I think that is because our health care was set up in the late 60s/early 70s when the ideal of dualism was even more popular.

      • BJ
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        I don’t understand your claim that a system like Finland’s is implicitly based on determinism. Desire to rehabilitate criminals and blame criminality on other circumstances is not sufficient to prove your thesis. It seems like you’re suggesting that any time someone favors rehabilitation, they’re implicitly supporting determinism, but the same could be said about any system: if you’re looking at a system like the US, you could say that criminals are locked up for longer because the administrators think it’s unlikely that the criminal could ever do otherwise, as no new inputs could be as strong as the ones that led the prisoner to criminality. But the most important issue is that the systems are based on empathy/belief in people’s ability to change VS. retribution/belief in people’s inability to change. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with determinism, and if determinism isn’t provided as a reason, then I see no reason to assume it’s implicit in the system.

        • Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:53 am | Permalink

          I’d like to argue with that… but I can’t. The strongest argument against, for instance, death penalty is that we cannot know what we’ll find out next week or how a personality will change in the long run.

          If determinism is defined as belief in irreversible causality, it’s more or less synonymous with scientific thinking. But its only connection with humane judicial thinking is they are both children of the Enlightenment.

          • Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

            The strongest argument against the death penalty is that it is barbaric and almost every civilised country on the planet has abandoned it. Same with torture.

            Arguments for their outlawing them worldwide based on the possibility of killing or torturing the ‘wrong’ person imply that there are people the State can legitimately execute or torture.

            • Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

              Death penalty is outlawed in all 47 Council of Europe member states. I was talking down to you Yanks and Chinks and what have you 🙂

              • Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, I know you are not writing in support of the death penalty. I just think that line of argument is counterproductive.

                It’s what bugs me about most prison movies or TV shows. They usually centre on someone wrongly convicted or convicted of some minor offence and this diverts attention away from the utter barbarity of inflicting these punishments on even the worst offenders.

        • Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

          But the most important issue is that the systems are based on empathy/belief in people’s ability to change VS. retribution/belief in people’s inability to change.


      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Objection: Neither Finnish nor the rest of Scandinavian criminal law have implicit given up the principle of free will. But: these criminal justice systems set other priorities than, for example, the American criminal justice system: not retribution / atonement and deterrence are in the assessment of the penalty and dealing with the offender in the foreground, but the rehabilitation idea and the idea of ​​humanity.
        The perpetrator is seen first and foremost as a person who is also and especially a victim of the circumstances in which he grew up. In emphasizing this latter fact, emphasizing the importance of environmental conditions and mental injury or impairment, the result is actually something akin to an implicit abandonment of the free will, because when one is understood to be almost completely determined by circumstances, then that is actually not much left of a self-determined offender who could act with a free will.

        • Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

          The Finnish criminal justice system is based on alternatives to imprisonment such as fines, community service, probation.

          There were several reforms in the 70s and 80s.
          In 1991, civilian service was introduced as the main punitive measure. First in model projects and 1995 nationwide.

          The average prison term has been reduced overall.

          Since the 1976 reform, the criminal records are no longer included in the sentencing.

          Great efforts have been made to minimize jail sentences for adolescents (15-17) and adolescents (18-20) – with success: prison figures have since fallen to a fraction: from 125 to 5 or from 350 to 80.

      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        I didn’t read Speaker-to-Animals’ comment as quite so confrontational as PCC(e) did… It’s a fair question: are there any examples of a pure determinism-based approach to criminal justice?

        As PCC(e) says, the Scandinavian countries come close — and their results are impressive (prisons in Norway have been closed because they don’t have enough criminals any more), although the culture there is so different that we probably can’t extrapolate how it would work in the U.S.

        Still, in the U.S. we have hundreds of prisons and millions of prisoners; surely there’s ample opportunity to try out a more science-based approach (in contrast to the Old Testament approach that is the norm) on a limited scale, and see how it goes.

      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        I’ve worked with ex-offenders and I’ve never encountered any colleague successfully rehabilitating anyone by treating them as a ‘broken machine’.

        Anyone who isn’t scared shitless by the idea of the state treating all criminal activity as a psychiatric condition must be pretty confident they are never going to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          How’d it work out for that Alex DeLarge bloke in A Clockwork Orange?

          • Posted January 29, 2018 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

            In the book and the film the Ludovico technique repressed his humanity and lead to his attempted suicide.

            In the book (not the film, which ends at Chapter 20) Alex eventually grew out of his hooliganism. His genuine reformation came about through choice.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Determinism is either true or it isn’t. If it’s true, do you advocate we pretend otherwise out of fear of a bad result?

      And which societies have actually adopted a legal system based on “biological or social determinism”? Marx, of course, posited “historical materialism,” but that’s not synonymous with “determinism,” and none of the putatively communist countries (to the extent any of them can be said to have followed Marx’s principles) had legal systems based on determinism as we use that term here.

      • darrelle
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        “. . . determinism as we use that term here.”

        That is a key point. Often in these discussions I read comments that seem to be getting a little sloppy with the term determinism as it is meant in this context. In this context determinism as defined in physics is what is meant. That events are bound by causality. I would be very surprised to learn of any justice system in the past that was based on an understanding of determinism in this sense. Perhaps some ideologues picked up the idea and twisted it to their purposes, just as Social Darwinists picked up some basic aspects of Darwin’s ideas and twisted them to support their ideological predispositions.

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 4:48 am | Permalink

        You didn’t answer my question but deflected it and posed a question to me.

        My view was that accepting determinism helps people in their drive for prison reform. It helped me and it helped Clark see that, and I think it would help others see that.

    • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      What Jerry and sherfolder said. It isn’t as if there’s been any explicit repudiation of contra-causal free will in Scandinavia, only that it’s generally understood that criminals are usually functions of punitive conditions, so why continue to replicate those conditions in the criminal justice system when they’re so clearly counter-productive? In the US, it’s widely thought that offenders deeply deserve harsh punishment, and that belief is reinforced by the supposition that they could have done otherwise in actual situations, so are self-caused in some respect. Get rid of that belief, and it’s harder to justify harsh treatment. Some research on this: “Free Will and Punishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution.”

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:37 am | Permalink

        Isn’t the reason to reduce harsh treatment of criminals and replace it with rehabilitation and better re-integration with society simply because it works better? Regardless of what we say about free will and causality, people will continue to make decisions the old-fashioned way. Even if minds could be changed this way, is it really a good idea to reduce the perceived responsibility for a persons’s actions?

        • Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:55 am | Permalink

          If you say the system works better by reducing harsh treatment, that’s premised on the assumption that offenders don’t deserve harsh treatment. Reducing the perception that people are self-caused helps keep our retributive responses in check.

          • Posted January 30, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

            I disagree. Perhaps reducing harsh treatment works better because it doesn’t force the person into thinking they are a criminal for life. It has nothing to do with whether they deserve it. Such attitudes are the result of emotion and it is well known that listening to our emotions is not optimal in many cases.

            On the other hand, if I regard my decisions as less my own, doesn’t that give me cover to let my emotions reign, allowing me to favor more retribution? It allows me to ignore rational arguments to the contrary and “go with my gut”.

  5. jars634760860
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I would recomend this essay of Thomas Metzinger aboutt conciousness and free will and metal autonomy.
    I think he is clear about we shouldn´t conclude already free will is an illusion.

    • Rosmarie Maran
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      This is a great recommendation! Absolutely worth reading. Metzinger is a l w a y s worth reading. Clear and concise no-nonsense mind philosophy.

      • jars634760860
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

        Yes, I just don´t know how he is not well known. I just read his “Ego Tunnel”: fantastic. In that book as here, he doesn´t not jump to the conclusión there is no free will because of determinism. I think he lets a possibility for compatibilism.

        • Rosmarie Maran
          Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          I guess that for Europeans it’s sometimes difficult to keep in mind how in America the free-will debate is so heavily charged with religious issues. Metzinger does not engage in this specific battle, maybe he is just a bit too “cool” for some determinism hot-heads.

          • Posted January 30, 2018 at 4:46 am | Permalink

            From a determinism “hot head” (thanks for the compliment): I read that essay and found it confused and not at all a convincing argument against determinism, physical causality or for some kind of libertarian free will. If the essay argues that there is libertarian “free will” in some sense, in which our brains don’t have to obey the laws of physics, but can override them (most people’s notion of free will), I didn’t find it in that essay.

            • Posted January 30, 2018 at 5:55 am | Permalink

              I agree. Metzinger does not contribute any new or important thoughts to the debate and to describe his writings as confusing fits it very well.
              Although he admits on the one hand that there can’t be doing otherwise, he draws the conclusion that this knowledge is not so important, but much more interesting is: “whether there are forms of freedom in a weaker and still philosophically interesting meaning, which in this sense can be reconciled with the scientific worldview. ”
              A typical compatibilist: Although they pretend to have accepted determinism, in the next step they turn to side-scenes because they refuse to deal with the core questions that would arise from the acceptance of the not doing otherwise.

            • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:11 am | Permalink

              A lot of futile debate seems to arise from the fact that here in Europe this, frankly, is not “most people’s notion of free will” at all. In Catholic Poland it might be, I’m not sure. I suppose “free” is the most confusing concept in philosophy.

            • Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:10 am | Permalink

              I have a hard time believing that most people’s notion of free will is that we are able to override physics when we make decisions. I’m sure their grasp on the subject is typically fuzzy but this idea is very specific. If asked in just that way, they wouldn’t agree based on how fantastical it sounds. Perhaps some deeply religious people would but not most people.

    • Posted January 29, 2018 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      I sent it to PCC-e a few days ago. I think it’s pretty interesting although I don’t know if being able to direct your thoughts would mean free will. There is still the question of why you chose to follow that particular line of thought.

      • jars634760860
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        That’s right as Metzinger himself says “Mind-wandering research suggests that we need to get rid of naive, black-and-white distinctions such as ‘free will’ versus ‘determinism’, ‘conscious’ versus ‘unconscious’, and what philosophers call ‘personal’ versus ‘sub-personal’ processes”.
        I can’t see how practical is to say “we have no free will, lets change our attitude”. I think Metzinger has a better approach about these mental phenomena.

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink


  7. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    A website-technical comment:

    Reading Tom’s website _in mobile format_ showed me one reason like reading WEIT : I can SKIM easily.

    Mobile format is great if I plan to examine d try word in minute detail …

    This is not a criticism of either writer,…

    Commenting here though is tedious as it’s so small and takes too much to zoom in etc. even if it all works perfectly

    I have to go mow…

    I mean NOW

  8. glen1davidson
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    that accepting determinism prompts empathy and compassion in a way that might not arise otherwise, and describes several other salubrious side effects.

    I’ll think about it, then decide whether or not I wish to be determined by such a fate.

    More seriously, I don’t really see how recognizing the lack of free will necessarily makes one better or worse. I can easily see how it could lead one to treat humans like machines to be forced to be whatever one wants.

    Glen Davidson

  9. Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    In an earlier article, What Should We Tell People About Free Will, Clark points out that Coyne and Harris debunk libertarian free will as if such arguments deny compatibilist free will (robust proximate control.)

    “So in Coyne and Harris we have two instances of scientists engaged (Dennett isn’t, particularly) in the important project of debunking the myth of libertarian free will – ultimate, contra-causal control – but in so doing they verge on denying the reality of robust proximate control.”

    • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Yes, one has to be careful not to suppose that being fully caused obviates one’s own causal powers, including that of making choices. That’s why in the talk I emphasized “agent determinism,” the fact that *we* often make things happen. Both Jerry and Sam sometimes give the impression that under determinism we end up as puppets of physical laws, e.g., see the cover of Sam’s book on free will, highly unfortunate! But overall I think they both would agree about agent determinism.

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        But we are puppets of physical laws, nothing else, despite all these nice delusions we have about ourselves. There is nothing wrong with the cover of Sam’s book.

        • YF
          Posted February 1, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          Yes, if Naturalism is true, then we are indeed meat puppets of physical laws, regardless of whether they are deterministic or indeterministic.

          This doesn’t mean that we can’t make choices, but our choices are derived from the brain, whose operation is dictated by physics.

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 8:01 am | Permalink

        I’m not too sure of Sam Harris there. He seems to have a blind spot.

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        The important thing is: we are not born as white puppets that are similar to each other, we are not unwritten papers. We are puppets that look different and behave differently because of our genes, the environment in which we grew up. Our wishes, our interests are different, but they go together, if we have the same goals. Scientific truth, evidence-based knowledge can be such a goal that is worth to engage for.

  10. BJ
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    It seems very optimistic to assume that belief in determinism will lead to greater empathy. I don’t see why a belief in determinism should affect a society with a retributive system like the US. There are several reasons why this might not be the case:

    (1) Long, punishing prison sentences are inputs just like rehabilitative practices, and the only questions are which inputs will be most effective. In fact, it can be easily argued that systems criminals know will not be nearly as punishing to them will make them less likely to avoid crime.

    (2) The idea that people who do terrible things should be punished doesn’t need to take into account whether or not the criminal could have done otherwise. Punishment is used to repay the criminal’s debt to the victim and society, deter other criminals (again, an input just like rehabilitation), and demonstrate the strength of the law and government. Rehabilitation isn’t necessarily the end goal of a system, so inputs won’t necessarily be geared toward it.

    (3) Building off point two, even if determinism does engender empathy, the question becomes whether the society as a whole has more empathy for the criminal or the victim, and this aspect of the culture will still likely determine what kind of prison system is used.

    Aside from prison systems, determinism seems unlikely to change people’s day-to-day beliefs. We encounter many people in our daily lives who appear to be terrible by nature, and even talk about them as if they can’t be otherwise (e.g. “Ugh, James is such a jerk. She can’t help herself”). We perceive many people we despise as having an ingrained propensity toward manipulation, or violence, or disregard for the feelings of others, and this doesn’t change how we treat or think of them. Often, if we perceive someone’s mistreatment of others as part of their nature, we despise them more than someone who acts out of obliviousness. When we speak of psychopaths — a label that suggests their behavior is an extension of who they are — we don’t usually do so with empathy, but with anger and disgust.

    • Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      This word belief creates a lot of dilemmas.The experience of meditation does show-you how haphazard, habitual and somewhat unstoppable our thought trains are. It takes patience and hard work and some degree of sudden insight to gain , not control, but patience, not buying into the entertainment value of a very busy mind, and not buying into further elaboration on on what are taken to be particularly juicy thought trains. Metzingers essay seems pretty right on to me. The only belief involved in undertaking a meditation practice is that of believing that the mind deserves to be looked at and is workable and not just taken for granted.It is out of this sympathy for one’s own struggle-seeing that exasperation and idea, rationalisation of quitting are just more ego aggrandisement,futile attempts to keep a notion of unchanging self coherent that sympathy for others develops. They are stuck in the same hole without even knowing it-even if it is gold plated.So some kind of meta intelligence begins to be awakened.
      I would be very interested to see what Jerry’s take on Metzinger is. Not that I am arguing against his position.

    • BJ
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Just to be clear: I support a rehabilitative system that avoids prison when possible, like Finland’s. I’m just analyzing things from a different perspective.

      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        I am absolutely in favour of rehabilitation over punishment. Prison is an fucking disaster. I’ve known people sent to prison four or five times a year. It doesn’t work. Getting people off drugs, out of poverty, out of social circles in which crime is a way of life, and into work benefits everyone. I just don’t see how pretending they have no agency helps.

    • Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      I agree. The case for reforming our prisons (or not) lies elsewhere. I am in favor of prison reform. We should look to systems in these other countries to learn what works. US attitudes towards these things are not unchangeable.

      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        It is clear that, whatever be your opinion on determinism, we don’t really need it in order to reform/improve the justice and penal systems.

        • Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink


        • darrelle
          Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure that is a strong argument against an understanding of determinism being useful for inspiring reform of our justice and penal system. Like all complex issues the goal can surely be achieved in a number of ways. Promoting an understanding of the implications of determinism for human behavior may not be necessary but it may be useful. Even if it doesn’t inspire everyone it may have a net positive effect. I don’t think we have the information necessary to say either way at this time.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Punishment is used to repay the criminal’s debt to the victim and society …

      I understand the “debt to the victim” in terms of making monetary restitution to return the victim as close to status quo ante as possible. But what is the source of an offender’s “debt to society” in a determinist system where the offender could not have done otherwise? Is it to be measured solely in terms of the harm caused? Would, for example, a driver exercising all due care who nevertheless hits and kills a bicyclist who darts out in front of him owe the same “debt to society” as a driver who accelerates to run down a cyclist against whom he holds a grudge? If not, why not?

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        I believe you answered your own question on the bicyclist killed. The legal system would not or should not convict the first example of murder or maybe not even manslaughter. The second example would. If we believe in determinism the second example is still guilty of those higher crimes but it does not mean he cannot be rehabilitated in the future to change the determinism. So next time he will do otherwise…

      • BJ
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s a matter of philosophy; the measurements and how they are performed come later. Societies that believe a criminal must suffer to pay for the harm done to their system/culture/government/people/social order by his actions will measure that harm and how it is weighed in different ways, but the philosophy is the same. I have no opinion on the matter, as I don’t share the philosophy. And I don’t understand how the criminal’s inability to do otherwise affects the philosophy’s core principle.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          It’s precisely because “it’s a matter of philosophy” that acceptance of determinism instead of our current “blameworthiness” model would work such a …(wait of it)… sea change in our criminal justice system.

          • BJ
            Posted January 29, 2018 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

            I guess I still need you to explain why determinism should affect the philosophy. If the idea is to repay society, then why would it matter whether or not the criminal could have done otherwise?

      • glen1davidson
        Posted January 30, 2018 at 12:17 am | Permalink

        Would, for example, a driver exercising all due care who nevertheless hits and kills a bicyclist who darts out in front of him owe the same “debt to society” as a driver who accelerates to run down a cyclist against whom he holds a grudge? If not, why not?

        Because, for one thing, punishing the person who runs over the stupid cyclist won’t do anything to prevent it from happening again. Someone determined (both senses) to drive like an idiot will likely get injured or killed, due to his own actions. And that’s not the highest priority for society, even if we’d prefer that the cyclist be less reckless, because it causes troubles for others (emotionally for most who hit them, regardless of the fact that they couldn’t do otherwise) as well as for himself.

        We can and should do something to dissuade people from running down cyclists in order to injure or kill them. It hardly matters that those who do have no libertarian free will, we can still do things to lessen the odds that they will be caused to run down and kill cyclists.

        Glen Davidson

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        The debt to society comes from lots of people suffering small losses, due to reasonable fears about crime. The accidental and deliberate collisions with bicycles are an excellent case in point. The deliberate killer would cause a lot more fear.

    • Posted January 29, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      I agree in many points.

    • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      “It seems very optimistic to assume that belief in determinism will lead to greater empathy. I don’t see why a belief in determinism should affect a society with a retributive system like the US.”

      Here’s some research on that:

      “Free Will and Punishment: A Mechanistic
      View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution”

      • BJ
        Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        Thanks, Tom. I’ll be very interested to read more comprehensive research in the future. I always find it difficult to take studies based on MTurk surveys seriously, considering the various issues involved in that method (e.g. self-selected/limited sample group). As for the rest, it’s a very superficial study on the subject, and I don’t think it’s possible to accurately predict how society, government, and culture as a whole will react to a deterministic perspective, should it spread that far.

        • Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          It seems obvious that exposing people to scientific knowledge of human behavior “reduces support for retributive punishment”. Perhaps consideration of free will and causality had nothing to do with this study’s results. Perhaps they could control for that.

        • Posted January 30, 2018 at 11:11 am | Permalink

          Sure, as always, more research is needed. A recent study by Cory Clark (no relation), Roy Baumeister and Peter Ditto (“Making punishment palatable: Belief in free will alleviates punitive
          distress”) finds that belief in free will helps to reconcile people to punishment. Which suggests that undermining such a belief by promoting determinism would make people more reluctant to act punitively. See also research by Thomas Nadelhoffer in “The potential dark side of believing in free will”, a chapter in Gregg Caruso’s book Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility.

          • BJ
            Posted January 30, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

            Thanks very much for the interesting research.

  11. Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the purpose of retribution is to make the victims feel better. If punishing criminals makes victims feel better, and this feeling is widespread among humans (which I think it is), who is to say that it is wrong? After all, as atheists we believe morality is wholly a human construct.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      What limits on retribution would you propose? To what extent should the punishment meted out to an offender depend on the victim’s sensitivity and thirst for retribution? For example, if some skell raped a woman I love, I’d like to have her presented with his testicles in a jar of formaldehyde. But I hope none of us would wish to live in a society that authorizes such retributive punishment.

      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

        I agree. The current practice of letting victim and their relatives vent after conviction and before sentencing also bothers me for similar reasons. It seems to make the process more about revenge. It also seems to say that a longer sentence will be given if the family crafts a more compelling story. Makes no sense to me.

        • Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

          It also means that a murderer who kills someone who has no friends or family to speak up for them – in other words, the kind of person who is most likely to be murdered – gets off more lightly.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

            This is why the use of so-called “victim impact statements” during sentencing proceedings has been such a contentious issue, especially in death-penalty cases.

      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        An eye for an eye? Just kidding. Obviously I think punishment should be humane and in proportion to the offense, and the victims have to live with that.

        But the retribution question is tricky. If the state does not punish, people may take it into their own hands. Much gang violence is retribution-seeking.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 29, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure that would be an issue. Sure, there is a significant percentage of people that want to see criminals be made to suffer and they may make some noise if they think the justice system isn’t doing the job they think it should. But there are also many people like Ken, you (it seems like) and I that though we may experience an urge to visit violence on a criminal who hurts or kills a loved one, we wouldn’t want to live in a society that allows people, even ourselves, to actually do it.

          I think if the people are confident that the government is handling criminal justice in a way that protects citizens and keeps crime at a sufficiently low rate, whether it involves punishment or not, that society in general will accept it. For example, Finland. Finland doesn’t have any serious vigilante problems.

          • Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

            As Finland keeps coming up, I’ll just note that the entire country had 70 homicides in 2015 and 63 homicides in 2016.

            Admittedly we have only 5,5 million inhabitants, but, to compare: Chicago had 468 homicides in 2015 and 762 homicides in 2016.

            No Finnish city has had a problem remotely like this since the Prohibition (which Finland had from 1919 to 1932).

            I can certainly understand why a Chicago professor keeps pondering about these things.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

              It’s not known as “Chiraq” for nothin’.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted January 29, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

          This is the issue that probably cost Michael Dukakis the 1988 presidential election — well, that and Willie Horton and that goddam stupid helmet he put on in the tank. 🙂

          • Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

            I remember. Somehow that tank ride video went viral before the internet was even invented.

  12. Posted January 29, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    So we are not uncaused causers. I buy that. Where I have trouble is in seeing that this makes any difference in terms of how we move through life making decisions. It seems that Tom Clark has the same issue but doesn’t recognize it. He writes about how things would improve (or at least change) if we dump free will but elsewhere he claims that, if we do, we shouldn’t worry about losing our sense of authorship, morality, etc. as we still have the ability to cause things. If so, this is the case for the author (good) and the criminal (bad). It’s a wash.

  13. Vaal
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:02 pm | Permalink


    Work to do.

  14. Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I have to work to do but I must watch later.

    I used to think arguments for determinism made no sense with regard to compassion and empathy, but I am convinced now. One only needs to read previous posts on this issue to be convinced.

    Consider one simple example: Dr. Larry Nasser. He was determined to do the things had done. Could he have done otherwise? Of course. Imagine a situation where the first instance of his abuse is caught by a vigilant and responsive mother (I know many). His undoing could have been in hours, not years with only one victim, not hundreds. And with help he might have been provided the resources and support system to not offend again. History would have been different, but determined all the same.

    • Rosmarie Maran
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      I guess you mix up “determined” and “conditioned” – as everybody seems to do in these discussions. And heck, determinism means exactly that things could not have turned out differently as they did!

      • Posted January 29, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        If by conditioned you mean there are an infinite number of determined, and physically possible outcomes, then yes. This is multiverse territory. Many outcomes, all determined.

  15. Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Even without them accepting “determinism”, understanding why people act the way they do seems to help breed compassion in some. But in others it seems not to – one just gets a sort of “suck it up buttercup” unhelpful or worse answer. I wonder what the difference is. The self-applicability/self-reference of this problem is interestingly dizzying!

  16. Posted January 29, 2018 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks, Jerry, for posting this, and I’m glad to hear we’re on the same page re accepting determinism and the benefits of such acceptance. As you’ve pointed out in earlier posts on free will, there’s considerable reluctance among high-profile secularists to broach this topic, with the notable exception of Sam Harris. Robert Sapolsky (as you’ve mentioned) has also come out against contra-causal free will and described in his book “Behave” how a deterministic understanding of ourselves might change attitudes concerning credit, blame, and punishment and therefore affect criminal justice policies. There are actually a fair number of free will and moral responsibility skeptics in the philosophical community making the same case, e.g., those involved in the Justice Without Retribution Network and Raoul Martinez who you posted about recently. More power to them and thanks for your encouragement!

    There are several false conclusions sometimes reached about determinism, some of which get mentioned in the talk, including the idea that it renders us incapable of making real choices, so we end up mere puppets of circumstance without our own causal powers. Another is the misconception that determinism is a universal excuse. I suspect one reason that celebrities who might be determinists don’t explicitly endorse determinism is that citing a causal history of a wrongdoer (Hitler, of course!) can be perceived as exoneration. In the comments, Kevin Henderson mentions Dr. Larry Nassar, serial abuser. To point out that Nassar was fully caused, not self-caused, to become a “monster” (see a recent New York Times editorial) will be taken by many as an excuse for his wrong-doing, when nothing of the sort follows. What does follow from accepting determinism is that justifications for sanctions premised on the idea that he could have done otherwise in actual situations are untenable. Compatibilists of course argue that the full range and depth of deservingness, in particular of retributive punishment, still apply under determinism, but for no good reason I (or you) can see. This strikes me as the scandal of compatibilism, something you’ve often pointed out in these pages. Keep up the good fight and maybe other celebrity determinists will come out of the closet and help change the culture.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:02 am | Permalink


      I wish I wasn’t so busy with work otherwise I’d join the conversation in more detail.

      But just briefly: I have defended a compatibilist take on free will, though I am skeptical that we can (or would want to) preserve the “full sense” of “deservingness”
      that, say, Libertarian free willers want to preserve.

      I know there is some debate as to whether one must accept that “ultimate deservingness” to be defending free will or even be a compatibiist.

      However, I continually find the hard determinism/incompatibilist arguments to be full of inconsistencies and incoherence, and find that a compatibiist approach irons out many o these problems.

      It seems to me we need – and have – a robust sense of “could have done otherwise” – to make sense of the world, including our experience, which incompatibilists continue to reject. (Or, that is, until they are argued to the point where they say “Well, ok, yes we have THAT sense of could do otherwise…but that’s not what I’m talking about, or what people think they have…” and the debate continues….)

      Do you accept the idea we have agency and that it still makes sense within determinism to say “I could have done otherwise?”

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Hi Vaal, and yes there’s certainly a robust sense under determinism in which I often could have done otherwise (CHDO), namely if the situation had been different in some relevant respect, e.g., had I wanted to do otherwise. In the talk I’m careful to distinguish this counterfactual sense of CHDO from the idea that we CHDO in *actual* situations in a way that makes us more responsible than were we completely determined in our actions. It’s the capacity for this sort of contra-causal, libertarian CHDO which is what I suspect most folks suppose we have, and that it would be good to disabuse them of.

        Re agency, in the talk I emphasize “agent determinism”: that we as agents have robust causal powers even though we are fully caused ourselves.

        “I am skeptical that we can (or would want to) preserve the ‘full sense’ of “deservingness” that, say, Libertarian free willers want to preserve.”

        Glad to hear this, but the hallmark of most compatibilists is that they want to preserve such desert in full light of determinism. This strikes me as insupportable and very harmful. So I think compatibilists have some soul-searching to do.

        • Vaal
          Posted January 30, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

          It’s the capacity for this sort of contra-causal, libertarian CHDO which is what I suspect most folks suppose we have, and that it would be good to disabuse them of.

          Agreed the magical/contra-causal ideas are something want to disabuse people of.

          The debate we often have, as you know, focuses on the actual role contra-causal assumptions actually play, or don’t play, in our everyday choice making. I think counter-factual (and other forms) of thinking play a larger role, and so I see a lot of baby-being-thrown-out-with-the-bathwater pronouncements from incompatibilists.

          I don’t yet see how this can be worked out without using compatibilist frameworks.

          • Posted January 30, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

            I agree that counterfactual reasoning plays a huge role when it comes to making choices, but when it comes to folk ideas about human capacities, the contra-causal assumption looms large I think. Ask just about anyone whether they could have done otherwise in an actual situation and my guess is they will say “Of course!” We can dispense with that assumption and not toss out the baby of counterfactual reasoning without signing on to compatibilism.

            • Vaal
              Posted January 30, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

              Yes but I would argue the reason people would say “of course” has more to do with the normal empirical inferences used when deciding “if I can do X or Y.”

              Not the magical notion.

              I think I could have stayed in for lunch today instead of gone out for the same reasons I think I can go out for lunch tomorrow instead of stay in. The bedrock of these notions seems like it not only is, but HAS to be assumptions that are consistent with determinism. (E.g. understanding ourselves as an entity through time, never frozen in time, and inferring from past experience to present and future experience to determine what we are capable of doing).

              When “normal people” a asked to think about this, they don’t delve deep philosophical analysis into all their assumptions to make sense. Rather, if they are asked to make sense of their intuition “I could have done otherwise” in the face of an apparently determined world, the best explanation they can come up with is “I can’t seem to deny I really think I have a choice, so I guess my choice-making must have some exception to the rule of determinism…(magic, contra-causality…)”

              But as compatibilists like myself argue, this is a folk theory as an explanation for our sense “I could do otherwise.” And I think incompatibilists tend to mistake the folk theory for the thing we want to explain.
              We don’t throw out the everyday idea “things are solid” because we can determine atoms in a “solid object” are not in fact contiguous.
              Just the opposite: we get a better understanding of the phenomenon of “solidity” that still refers to essentially the same distinctions we face on the macro level, and still does work for us.

              My feeling is usually that an incompatibilist and compatibilist can actually agree on so much, all the way down the line, but for me I keep seeing what strike me as “bad moves” in conceptualizing and explaining these issues when I listen to incompatibilists (including Sam Harris of whom I’m a great fan).

              • Posted January 30, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

                Well put. When people answer that question with “Of course”, they aren’t thinking about making the same decision with all variables (including time) having the same value. It makes no sense in the context of everyday life. What they mean is that they were free to make a decision based on all the factors they usually weigh in making that decision. In other words, no one overrode my decision or was even in a position to do so.

                I also agree with your opinion of Sam Harris.

              • Posted January 30, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                “Rather, if they are asked to make sense of their intuition ‘I could have done otherwise’ in the face of an apparently determined world, the best explanation they can come up with is ‘I can’t seem to deny I really think I have a choice, so I guess my choice-making must have some exception to the rule of determinism…(magic, contra-causality…)'”

                As you say, this is the folk theory of CHDO which needs to be challenged since it’s not consistent with determinism. There can be considerable resistance to giving it up, since we can’t assign credit or blame in the deep, ultimate sense premised on self-causation. But I have to say the audience for this talk (progressive humanists for the most part) was pretty receptive to determinism and its benefits, which was encouraging.

              • Vaal
                Posted January 30, 2018 at 11:50 pm | Permalink


                I’ve dipped into your video and plan to watch the whole talk when I have time, as it seems quite interesting.

                I tend to listen to podcasts (or other talks/lectures) when I’m trying to fall asleep and I’ve made the mistake of listening to the latest Sam Harris live talk with Matt Dillahunty and Lawrence Krauss. The discussion turned to free will. Very bad for my sleep as my mind starts shouting “!…you’re making no sense!”

                I didn’t have that reaction to the parts of your video I peeked at 🙂

    • YF
      Posted January 30, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Tom, would you not agree that there is a significant difference between giving money freely (e.g., to charity) and giving money at gunpoint? Between acting voluntarily, in accordance with one’s desires, and acting under duress? “Did you sign the contract freely or did he force you to do so?”

      I think this is the kind of ‘freedom’ that compatibilists are talking about and that incompatibilists appear to be denying. It seems to me to be a very real and meaningful concept (indeed, one that we all use in our daily lives), which does not deny the reality of determinism.

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        What a lean and lucid comment. Yes, my problem with incompatibilists exactly.

      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 3:47 pm | Permalink


      • Posted January 30, 2018 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Sure, absolutely. No one I know of would deny this distinction. Where I part ways with compatibilists is their defense of retributive desert and the fact they spend little or no time on the implications and benefits of taking a deterministic view of ourselves, something Jerry has frequently pointed out.

        • YF
          Posted January 31, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          Perhaps I don’t know enough compatibilists, but none of them defends retributive desert, at least in the religious sense.

          Question: Suppose determinism were false. Would that then justify retributive desert?

        • YF
          Posted February 1, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          Tom, perhaps you have spoken about this already, but I am curious how you would respond to the following:

          If the world were inherently indeterministic / unpredictable would that give us ‘free will’? I think not- as it would just make our choices random.

          So, determinism vs. indeterminism may actually not be relevant to the debate as to whether ‘free will’ exists.

          • Posted February 1, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I make the point in the talk and in “What should we tell people about free will?” (link below) that indeterminism can’t give us more control and responsibility than we would have under determinism (Jerry often makes this point). But libertarians about free will think indeterminism exists and that it does give us more control and responsibility, so that makes determinism vs. indeterminism relevant in the free will debate.

            I suspect (research needed!) that most folks are intuitive libertarians in that they suppose they are not completely caused in their choices and actions, and that lack of causation – a kind of ultimate self-origination – imparts ultimate responsibility to the individual.


    • Posted January 31, 2018 at 4:16 am | Permalink


      It’s a mistake to saddle compatibilism with the most vindictive forms of “retributivism”. For example, many theologians believe that some people deserve eternal torture in hell. Well, that’s just morally wrong – not metaphysically wrong, morally wrong! Even if people had contra-causal “abilities” torture would still be wrong, and any god who does that is an evil god.

      The mistake of hellfire retributivism is a moral mistake, not a metaphysical one. Free will of any stripe is beside the point.

      • Posted January 31, 2018 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        Thanks Paul, agreed. Still, I don’t understand how retributive desert, even if not vindictive, is compatible with determinism in the way that law scholars Michael Moore and Stephen Morse hold it to be. Some critiques of their views are at and

        • Posted February 2, 2018 at 4:35 am | Permalink

          Thanks Tom. Without pretending to understand Moore or Morse, I think it comes down to the justification of rules, including backward-looking rules. Some philosophers think rules come first, at the base level of ethical theory, and all else must be justified by those rules; call them Deontologists with a capital D. Some think Consequences come first: Consequentialism with a capital C. And some, like me, deny that any such hierarchy is necessary; that good consequences and right actions and virtuous traits are all important in their own right and there is no need to consider a single category to be foundational.

          But that doesn’t mean that consequences can’t play *a role* in the justification of a backward-looking rule. It only means that consequences aren’t the be-all and end-all.

          Now does that make me a retributivist? It depends on your definition of retributivism. If you have to be a Deontologist (capital D) to be a Retributivist, then no. If being a deontologist (small d) (as well as a consequentialist and virtue theorist, no capital letters) suffices, then yes.

  17. Dale Franzwa
    Posted January 30, 2018 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    I’m going to argue against determinism as a means of deciding what is right vs. what is wrong. I go back to David Hume and his proposition: An “ought” cannot be derived from an “is”. Deterministic science may be able to tell us what “is”. But determinism can’t tell us what “ought” to be. The laws of science are not the laws of societies. The laws of societies tell us what “ought” to be the case and what ought to be done in regard to those who violate those laws. There are many different kinds of societies, ranging from nation states (the EU) to book clubs and everything in between. One reason societies arise is mutual protection of their members. In this case, laws exist to (hopefully) protect those members. Such laws may prescribe punishments, expulsion of law violators, rehabilitation of law violators, etc. Science can play a role in helping societies decide what best to do to protect their members who live by the rules. But science can’t tell us what rules are “right” or “wrong”. That’s up to the members themselves. If Jerry or others believe the laws of Finland are better (more right than wrong)than those of the US, then argue on that basis alone. Otherwise, you are trying to derive an “ought” from an”is”.

    • Posted January 30, 2018 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      Who ever said that determinism leads to the conclusion that there are objective moral values to be discerned from science. That’s surely not my attitude, and I’ve said that explicitly, disagreeing with Sam Harris’s views on this subject. In fact, I’m in complete agreement with what you said.

      So when you say “I’m going to argue against determinism as a means of deciding what is right vs. what is wrong.”, please tell me who argued for that on this site? Certainly not Tom Clark or I.

    • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Agree with Jerry’s reply on this, and here’s my take on naturalizing normativity:

      Plus a response to Harris on his claim that science can ground values:

      Even though we don’t find progressive values written in natural laws, science can incline us toward the ideal of universal flourishing by telling the story of our common humanity, helping to expand moral concern to others not of our tribe or status. By promoting a science-based, naturalistic worldview, we can marginalize empirically unfounded justifications for unequal rights that block moral progress as liberals see it. It’s therefore of the first importance to champion science as an unrivaled epistemology that everyone should rationally embrace, given its proven ability to ground reliable beliefs about the world. Which is what Jerry did in Faith vs Fact.

  18. rickflick
    Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    It seems to me the key element in a shift from free will to determinism in criminal justice is to move from an emotion laden approach to a purely rational one.

    • Posted January 30, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but is emotion really involved in the free will/determinism question or is that just what the determinists want you to think? In other words, the determinists are saying that their way of thinking is more rational and less emotional.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 30, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        I’m thinking of the emotion involved in retribution. We may feel anger, even rage at the perpetrator of a crime. This can lead to a desire for retribution. Determinism suggests, I think, that since he could not have done otherwise, retribution is useless and the response should be pragmatic, such as preventing future crime, rehabilitation, etc.

        • Posted January 30, 2018 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          Agreed on the emotional aspect. It does not lead to quality rational thinking. However, one rational argument in favor of retribution is that it might discourage the recipient and others from committing future crimes. (I am not supporting this point of view but we can’t dismiss the argument lightly.) The retribution will be input to those future decisions as to whether to commit a crime.

          Determinism says that each crime decision is made based on the world’s state alone (no magic). The expected punishment is part of that state.

          The problem for the determinism argument in a nutshell is that could-not-have-done-otherwise applies to each decision independently.

          Please note that I am NOT saying that determinism is false. Just that it doesn’t have the effects claimed for it by some.

          • rickflick
            Posted January 30, 2018 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

            “one rational argument in favor of retribution is that it might discourage the recipient and others from committing future crimes.”

            Yes, but an emotional response might suggest that to discourage future crime one should make the punishment extreme. In fact this is the strategy of some cultures, both current and historical, which inflict severe torture or genocide for relatively minor offenses. A rational response, I think you’ll agree, should be measured. The punishment should “fit” the crime. If deterrence is a goal, research shows that many crimes, such as murder are often not deterred by severe punishment. Also, a starving people will steal bread even if to do so brings on a world of pain. To do a rational job responding to crime the system must be based on rational principles.

            • Posted January 30, 2018 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

              Agreed and exactly why I said that I wasn’t supporting this point of view.

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